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WHO panel calls COVID-19 a "preventable disaster," details steps to get out of it and avoid another pandemic

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United Nations – An investigation into what went right and wrong as the world confronted the coronavirus pandemic has found that there were "weak links at every point in the chain of preparedness and response." The panel appointed by the World Health Organization (WHO) called the COVID-19 pandemic a "preventable disaster."

Former prime minister of New Zealand Helen Clark and former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf chaired the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response, joined by politicians and experts from around the world.

The co-chairs called the panel's report "firm but fair in its examination of how a series of failures led to the biggest health, social, and economic disaster in living memory."

They warned that many world leaders "failed to act fast enough when COVID-19 appeared," and added: "They must not keep making the same mistakes."

The report found that the WHO was underfunded and underpowered, and that preparations for a  pandemic — a threat that experts had been warning about for years — were inconsistent and the global alert system too slow and ineffective.

While the panel was charged with analyzing the WHO's failures, its report does not specifically note China's early lack of information sharing on the virus that was first detected in its central city of Wuhan.

That may temper enthusiasm for the panel's report in countries, including the United States, that have criticized China's initial response. But the experts did give a subtle nod to the WHO's reliance on individual countries to share information, and proposes changes to address that are among the recommendations it made.

How to prevent the next crisis

The 13-member panel, which sought an "honest evaluation" of the crisis,  found that the WHO should be given new powers to investigate and gather evidence of potential pandemics in any country.

The recommendations in the 86-page report focused on "stronger leadership" around the world, with "a more focused and independent WHO," as well as a call for a new "Pandemic Treaty" and a senior Global Health Threats Council.

Some of the other recommendations include:

  • Creation of an improved system for disease surveillance and alerts, at a speed that can combat viruses like the one that causes COVID-19, along with authority for WHO to publish information and to dispatch expert missions immediately;
  • The ability to produce vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics and supplies and secure their rapid and equitable delivery as essential global common goods;
  • Production of and access to COVID-19 tests and therapeutics, including oxygen, should be scaled up urgently in low- and middle-income countries with full funding of $1.7 billion for 2021.

The panel also made an "urgent" call for the World Trade Organization and WHO to "convene major vaccine-producing countries and manufacturers to get agreement on voluntary licensing and technology transfer arrangements for COVID-19 vaccines" within three months, or else seek "a waiver of intellectual property rights" for the vaccines. The Biden administration has said it would support such waivers.

With new variants of the virus infecting people around the globe, CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook says health officials are in a race to vaccinate as many people as possible.

Last month, Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield convened a global dialogue on pandemic preparedness co-hosted by nations spanning five continents (Argentina, Norway, Japan and South Africa along with the United States) on how to avert the next global health crisis.

"The takeaway from this past year is clear: the world barely withstood this pandemic. We must be ready for the next. We cannot continue to under-invest — after outbreaks, epidemics, and now a pandemic — in our capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats," Thomas-Greenfield said as she launched the dialogue among global political, public health and NGO leaders aimed at learning the lessons of COVID-19 and preparing for the future.

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